Community Publishing

Chris Tonelli gave an excellent talk on limited-run small press publication. Rather than attempting to expiate small presses in light of an overwhelmed marketplace for poetry, Chris instead focused on the community-building aspects of small press and book-arts projects. For example, his So And So Reading Series in Boston works in collaboration with Rope-a-Dope Collaborative to produce letterpress broadsides of featured poets’ poems, which they sell on the night of their reading.

Drawing on Lewis Hyde’s idea that art exists in both a gift economy and market economy, he pointed out how limited-run collaborative publications foster community by delivering a select number of high-quality works to artist, collectors, and aficionados who truly appreciate the work. This has been my own experience firsthand in rather serendipitously entering in to my first book arts collaboration — that the collaboration itself was a gift between artists that then extended out to appreciative communities. Thanks to Chris for flying out to the Pacific University campus to deliver his unique perspective on community publishing.

Duhamel on Humor in Poetry

“The more sacred the slain cow, the tastier the feast.”

-Denise Duhamel

Denise Duhamel gave a laugh-out-loud funny talk on an oft-undervalued aspect of poetry: humor. She showed how classic stand-up tricks, like following the main punch-line with “tags,” mangled cliches and malapropisms, and, above all, a tone in satire that admits complicity — a kind of poking fun at the speaking self alongside all humanity — can serve to open up a funny poem to more than just laughs. How fitting that she deliver this talk on the heels of the news of George Carlin’s death, in the ha-ha-ouch age of Stephen Colbert. She spoke to the subversive nature of humor as a means to talk back to power through the side of one’s mouth, to work on levels too fast and facile to register in the minds of self-righteous oppressors — a kind of political Capoeira, an expansive, complicated, lethal dance with the truth.

What Yoda Means to Me

After hearing Marvin Bell read last night, I realize my assertion that he could levitate a space ship with his mind was somewhat understated. In fact, some might be downright confused by me comparing him to Yoda: is he green? does he have pointy ears? Not to my knowledge. He does invert syntax to bring pressure and rhythm to language — but, unlike Yoda, in doing so, Marvin remains grammatically correct.

There really are two aspects of Yoda that remind me of Bell. First, Yoda is a master teacher of an unteachable magic called the force. Second, and most importantly, in Episode II (the fifth film ever made) George Lucas gave every Star Wars junkie what they had long craved: the opportunity to see Yoda wield a light saber himself. With blinding alacrity and consummate skill, Yoda shows himself not only as a master teacher, but master practitioner. After Marvin’s poetry reading last night, a fellow student leaned over to me in the darkened theater and whispered, “he’s a genius.” Having spent last semester studying with him, I wanted to whisper back, “well, duh.”

Conversing with Greatness

The poetry craft talks so far have been broad and encompassing in their scope, and, true-to-form, Sandra Alcosser’s talk this afternoon was no exception. She spoke of the 4,000-year-old wisdom tradition that is literature, as the room filled up with the white Northern light of a solstice afternoon. She cited Shakespeare’s education in reading, translating, and memorizing the rhymed iambics of Ovid, and Whitman’s conversion from disdain of “un-American” opera to his assertion later that he could not have written Leaves Of Grass without having heard Bellini’s “Norma.”

In contrast to all the academic banter (especially among Americans) about eschewing received forms, Alcosser cited example after example of how genius in art consists not only, as Bell stated earlier, in getting in touch with one’s own “wiring” — but also in synthesizing tradition with newness. In fitting parallel with the theme of the talk, the question-and-answer session afterward opened out into a dialog among journeyman and accomplished writers alike about the remarkable and necessary tradition of literature, and the courage it takes to enter such a conversation with greatness.


“Genius in the arts consists of getting in touch with your own wiring.”

-Marvin Bell

Joseph Millar and Marvin Bell, both former faculty advisors during my study at Pacific, conducted a roundtable discussion around the theme of what writing poetry teaches one about poetry itself. At the forefront of their message was: write! As in, do it.

They focused on the necessity of the process to their lives (not the product) — the quality of humility necessary when coaxing out new work (Millar), and the freedom necessary to write long enough, and bad enough, to get better (Bell).

In this sense, Marvin’s admonition that poetry is a way of life, not a career, and Joe’s analogy that keeping on writing limbers one’s muscles to be flexible and receptive to the dance, renders complimentary angles to a simple but profound message: writing is about writing. Talk is talk. Publication is nice; a fleeting pleasure. Writing.

Hearing about the importance of process, and the transitory pleasure of product, reminded me once again of this great little animation of a recording by Alan Watts.